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Why sportspeople should stick to the pitch and stay out of politics | Andrew Anthony
Cricket Sport

Why sportspeople should stick to the pitch and stay out of politics | Andrew Anthony

There’s an old adage that says sport and politics don’t mix. It’s a moot point with persuasive arguments on both sides. But in light of former England spin bowler Monty Panesar’s jaw-dropping radio interview last week as George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain’s prospective candidate for Ealing Southall, west London, in the next election, perhaps a more pertinent question is whether sportspeople and politics are a propitious union.

Panesar, once described as the “best finger spinner in the world”, was asked about the party’s commitment to leave Nato, which is one of its key policies. He admitted that he didn’t have a “deep knowledge” of Nato but explained that his party wanted to quit the military alliance to prevent illegal immigration.

As the alliance has about as much control over migration as it does over the Eurovision song contest, it was one of those interviews that was best savoured rocking slowly back and forth in a crouched position with head tucked self-protectively between legs. In two chastening minutes Panesar demonstrated that not only did he have no idea what Nato is, he was also clueless as to what his party stood for.

Does that merely signify the poor quality of candidates that Galloway is able to attract or is it a wider comment on the limited preparation professional sport offers for dealing with what politicians like to call the real world?

After all, Panesar is not the first sportsperson to want to make that world better. For it might be argued that sport, with its ­competitiveness, respect for rules, need for cooperation, and ability to withstand ­setbacks is not a bad training ground for aspiring politicians.

Let’s not forget that years before he became national spokesman of the Green party, and even longer before he identified the royal family as shape-shifting lizards and Nato as an organisation run by “Rothschild Zionists”, David Icke was a goalkeeper for Hereford United.

Although he retired at 21, he has said that football was a formative experience. Another young footballer was Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who played for FC Felcsút. Although Orbán led Hungary into Nato, he has often made for a difficult alliance bedfellow, even appearing to side with Vladimir Putin, Nato’s arch enemy.

And what about Imran Khan? The deposed Pakistani prime minister was, of course, a great cricket all-rounder who played for Worcestershire and captained his country. But in 2013, when he was an opposition leader, he threatened to blockade Nato supply routes through Pakistan unless it stopped drone attacks on the Taliban.

Vitali Klitschko boxing in 2004.View image in fullscreen

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to conclude that earning your ­living in professional sports ­necessarily leads to an antipathy towards Nato. For one thing, Vitali Klitschko, former world heavyweight boxing champion, and now mayor of Kyiv, is all in favour of closer Ukrainian cooperation with Nato, not least to help protect Ukraine from the Russian war machine.

In fact, there are even sportspeople who have turned to politics and avoided the issue of Nato entirely. Ted Dexter, one-time England cricket captain, stood for the Tory party in Cardiff South East in 1964 and apparently expressed no views on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation either way (although he did lose the seat).

As Dexter’s case shows, and we must suspect Panesar’s will underline, sporting celebrity is no guarantee of electoral success. There are indeed some examples in which a player attains such high levels of sporting acclaim that they are able to transfer the popularity into politics: Khan is one and George Weah, until January president of Liberia, another.

More common is the politician who retrospectively uses his sporting past to boost his image. Idi Amin, who was a light heavyweight boxing champion in Uganda, liked to trade on his pugilistic prowess the better to intimidate opponents. Perhaps it’s this kind of macho behaviour that explains the paucity of sportswomen who have become politicians.

Although there is Liz Smith, the Conservative member of the Scottish parliament, who represented the Scottish women’s cricket team, she hasn’t exactly set the world alight in either field. Politicians, of course, aren’t the only people to exert political influence.

The swimmer Sharron Davies came second in the 400m medley at the 1980 Olympics to East German Petra Schneider who later admitted that she was taking testosterone. Davies has campaigned against trans women participating in women’s sport because of biological advantages that she compares to drug-enhanced performances.

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So she might object to Caitlyn Jenner’s inclusion. She won an Olympic gold medal in the men’s decathlon in 1976, when she was competing as Bruce Jenner. Following her transition in 2015 she unsuccessfully ran in the 2021 Californian gubernatorial recall election as a Republican, achieving just 1% of the vote.

Like the UK, which can boast Edward Heath (winning captain of the Admiral’s Cup in yachting while he was prime minister), Sebastian Coe (multiple Olympic medal-­winning middle distance runner and chief of staff to William Hague) and Menzies Campbell (Olympic sprinter and leader of the Liberal Democrats), the US has produced a large number of sportspeople who have turned to politics.

Sebastian Coe runs in 800m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.View image in fullscreen

Most are far too obscure for a British audience, but there is one notable exception. He was a centre, linebacker and long snapper for the University of Michigan from 1932 to 1935. Afterwards he was a football coach at Yale. And four decades later he became the 38th president of the United States. Yes, Gerald Ford, the man who stepped up when Richard Nixon had to step down in disgrace. His presidency was brief and unlamented but he is perhaps best known for what his predecessor Lyndon B Johnson said of him: “He couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time”. (He actually said “fart” instead of walk, but the message is the same.) It suggests that Ford was not the fizziest drink in the fridge.

The image of all brawn and no brain is, however, an unfair one. There are many very bright sportspeople, some of whom would be a great boon to politics. The problem is when a sportsperson confuses public esteem for an ability to deliver a spin ball with active support for their political programme.

This is especially the case when they don’t know what that programme is.

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Source: theguardian.com